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Libya: What's next for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi?

Will the presidential bid of the son of Libya's ex-ruler threaten Khalifa Haftar's political future?
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Presidential hopeful Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of slain Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi (AFP/file photo)

Over the past week, a standoff in a lawless city nestled in Libya's desert badlands has been taking place between the second-eldest son of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the father's one-time general, eastern commander Khalifa Haftar.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's attempts to contest a ruling disqualifying him as a candidate for Libya's upcoming presidential elections have been thwarted by the general, who over the past week dispatched fighters to the southern city of Sabha to blockade the court where a legal review of Gaddafi's appeal was set to take place. 

“Any speculation over a possible rapprochement between the Haftar and Gaddafi camps appears to be out the window following events this week, as they are now locked in somewhat of a struggle for influence,” Nate Wilson, Libya country manager at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), told Middle East Eye.

On Thursday, militiamen aligned with Haftar reportedly stormed the courthouse of Sabha and threatened members of the judiciary against ruling on Gaddafi's case.

Tensions escalated soon after that with fighters belonging to the Tareq Bin Ziyad Brigade, a militia tightly controlled by Haftar, reportedly blocking access to the courthouse where Gaddafi's supporters had gathered, and closing roads throughout the city. 

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On Monday, the United Nations weighed into the events, issuing a statement that expressed concern over the situation in Sabha and warning it could impose sanctions on parties interfering in the election.  

The UN mission in Libya said it was “alarmed by increasing reports of intimidation and threats against judges and judicial employees” in the southern city, adding that the events were “directly impeding the electoral process”. 

A source close to Haftar’s circle said a militia had been deployed but denied they were sent to derail the appeal, telling Middle East Eye the field marshal was not threatened by a potential Gaddafi candidacy but was looking to secure the court against protestors. 

Many analysts believe otherwise and say that Gaddafi's lure as a candidate, which is tied to the country's authoritarian but less chaotic past, is viewed as a possible threat by Haftar who has tried to position himself as a force of stability in the war-ravaged country. 

“Haftar and Saif al-Islam are competing for similar constituencies,” Wilson said. 

'Flipping the chessboard'

While Haftar's forces have reportedly withdrawn from the courthouse, tensions between the two men could potentially unleash repercussions across Libya's fragile political map. 

On Wednesday, Libya's interior minister cited the incidents in Sabha as evidence that the security situation in the country is not conducive to holding elections, as he called for a delay to the 24 December poll. 

'The mere fact that Saif al-Islam could run as a legitimate, normal candidate would be enough to disrupt Haftar’s relatively frail influence in the Fezzan' 

- Jalel Harchaoui, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

World powers have been pushing for elections as a way to unite the oil-rich country after years of conflict, but many analysts have said the vote risks imperilling Libya's fragile peace. 

They have pointed to the candidacies of controversial figures like Haftar and Gaddafi as proof of the divisive nature of holding a vote when armed groups still hold power across the country and the electoral framework for elections is incomplete. 

Nowhere is that more so than in the city where Gaddafi and Haftar have been facing off.

Sabha is the capital of the Fezzan, a lawless southern province that is home to Libya's largest oil field, lucrative smuggling routes, and warring tribes. 

Analysts say that if Gaddafi has any hope of reviving himself as a political player, he must start in this region, which is ruled by a patchwork of militias and where both Haftar and the Tripoli-based government's control is limited.

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“The stakes in the Fezzan are particularly high because Gaddafism is strong there and Haftar has never fully controlled the province,” Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, told Middle East Eye.

“The mere fact that Saif al-Islam could run as a legitimate, normal candidate would be enough to disrupt Haftar’s relatively frail influence in the Fezzan,” he added.

Analysts say one reason Gaddafi launched his bid for the presidency in Sabha is that it is home to members of the Gaddadfa tribe from which the late ruler and his son trace their family origin.

Their presence in parts of the city, along with a sizeable number of other former Gaddafi loyalists, may have allowed for the wanted Gaddafi to travel outside of his hideout with some degree of safety.

“If you were Saif al-Islam and looking to flip the chessboard, people in Sabha are the people you would try to talk to,” Tim Eaton, a Libya expert at Chatham House, told Middle East Eye.

An upward trajectory

The western-educated and suit-wearing son of Muammar Gaddafi had all but vanished from public view for nearly a decade. He was captured by rebels in 2011 following a Nato-backed revolution that toppled his father and was sentenced to death by a court in Tripoli in absentia for war crimes over his role in attempting to suppress that uprising.

He is also subject to an outstanding arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court on two counts of crimes against humanity. 

'This isn’t just about the elections, it’s about Saif al-Islam emerging as a power broker'

- Tim Eaton, Chatham House

Last week Libya's election commission ruled against Gaddafi as a political candidate, citing his criminal record. While the 49-year old denies any wrongdoing, his efforts to contest the decision appear to have stalled.  

On Tuesday, the judicial commission responsible for handling the review said it was indefinitely suspending the ruling on Gaddafi's appeal. 

Eaton says that regardless of whether Gaddafi’s appeal to the election commission succeeds, his relevance as a political actor now hinges on how he manages his return to public life after years of isolation.

“This isn’t just about the elections, it’s about Saif al-Islam emerging as a power broker," he said. 

Gaddafi appears to be keeping a low profile since his candidacy was struck down. He has made few public statements and refrained from any calls to violence.

The silence is in stark contrast to 2011 when the one-time moderniser and self-styled democratic reformer promised there would be "rivers of blood" in Libya as his father's regime tried and failed to fight its opponents. 

Wilson, at USIP, says Gaddafi's switch to a more careful approach is paying off. "The way he has come back on the political scene and the fact that Libyans are talking as if he has a chance of winning elections, it seems Saif-al Islam is on an upward political trajectory for the moment". 

Military might

But that silence may also be due to one of Gaddafi's stumbling blocks, as opposed to any conversion to electoral democracy. In the West, he remains a wanted man, and even in the ungovernable south, observers say his security is in question.

Unlike Haftar, who continues to wield forces in the east and political actors in Tripoli with militias behind them, Gaddafi's armed capabilities are limited. 

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“Saif doesn’t move freely,” Reda Fhelboom, a well-known Libyan journalist and activist told Middle East Eye. “He can’t just walk into Sabha. He has no military power and everything he does must be negotiated beforehand.”

While Gaddafi may have a base with the "greens", the supporters of the old regime, in a country that has been a proxy for foreign powers, he appears to be without an international backer. 

Members of the Government of National Unity can rely on Turkish military and political support, while Haftar has maintained his connections with countries like the UAE, Egypt and Russia.  

In 2020, Bloomberg reported that Gaddafi conducted a series of meetings with consultants linked to the Moscow-backed Wagner mercenary group. However, those talks revealed deep divisions between Gaddafi and Haftar and did not appear to yield much for Saif al-Islam.  

“The tensions between Haftar and Gaddafi are also about relationships with external powers. Haftar wants to make sure he remains a conduit of that foreign support,” Eaton said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.